Pagan Origins of Sacramental Realism

Or, Neoplatonist Stew:

How Sacramentalism, Mysticism, and Sacerdotalism
Corrupted Christian Theology

Part 1 of a Series

Jesus Communion

Public Domain

by Rev. Paul A. Hughes, M.Div

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There is currently a movement afoot within Pentecostal ranks to add Sacramental Realism/spiritual efficacy/”means of grace” into our doctrine.  Its proponents hold that the Spirit moves and is conveyed in various ways through the action of taking Communion.  I maintain that such doctrine is an alternate spirituality and route of spiritual efficacy, not taught in the New Testament, in competition with Holy Spirit Baptism as actually taught by Christ and the Apostles.

I am against regarding the Lord’s Supper and Water Baptism as anything more than symbolic remembrances, testimonies, and ordinances.  To say more suggests “means of grace” or spiritual efficacy which is contrary to clear statements regarding the abiding means of grace, guidance, and empowerment through Holy Spirit Baptism.  If the Spirit moves through sacraments (unsupportable from Scripture), then Spirit Baptism would be rendered superfluous, as would the charismata.  Stretching “this is my body” beyond metaphor to “Sacramental Realism” is externally derived and exegetically unwarranted.

The Paraclete statements in John 14-16 contain not the merest suggestion relating to sacraments, nor do the commands to “tarry” for “the Promise of the Father” (Spirit Baptism), nor is there any positive command in the New Testament to take sacraments in order that the Spirit may come.

What Is Sacramental Realism?

The basic idea of Sacramental Realism is that the bread of the Lord’s supper is actually, spiritually, Christ’s body, and the drink is actually, spiritually, Christ’s blood.  Extreme views include Transubstantiation which Catholics believe, and Consubstantiation which various mainline Protestants believe.  Those traditions also tend toward Sacerdotalism, the idea that salvific efficacy and “grace” are conveyed by a priest in dispensing sacraments.  Thus Holy Communion to some is made the “means of grace” in order to receive or maintain salvation, which to them makes excommunication a matter of losing one’s soul.

Pentecostals who advocate Sacramentalism of course tend to distance themselves from those extremes, if only to avoid criticism, and speak in terms of spiritual feelings or some kind of existential realization that taking the Lord’s Supper evokes to them.  They also suggest that healings and other charismata may occur through taking sacraments, or a realization of Mystical Union with Christ.  The late Howard M. Ervin was a well-known Pentecostal supportive of Sacramental Realism.

The traditional Pentecostal view, and the exegetically-derived view, is that the Lord’s Supper is a remembrance/memorial observance, and the bread and drink metaphorical/symbolic of Christ’s actual body and blood, such that our participation is a confession and public testimony of our reliance on the actual sacrifice of Christ which they represent.

Let me be clear:  I in no way dispute that the Holy Spirit can move upon Spirit-filled people during the Lord’s Supper — in fact, I would be disappointed if He did not — and charismata also be manifested.  But I vehemently dispute the suggestion that the act of taking sacraments was intended by Christ as a “means of grace,” in itself, either for salvation, or the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, or the manifestations of the Spirit, alternative to the promised, conventional, normative, expected, and didactic picture and source of Spirit Baptism and spiritual activity found in the NT.  Note that Spirit Baptism is never directly associated with participation in the Lord’s Supper anywhere in Scripture.

An Argument from Silence

I noted when reading The Body by John A. T. Robinson that he recites a lot of exegesis regarding the Body of Christ, but when he finally introduces Sacramentalism, he takes a great leap past exegesis, and can provide no exegetical basis for that doctrine.  Similarly, Howard M. Ervin (Conversion-Initiation and the Baptism in the Holy Spirit) offers but scant exegetical proof; rather resorts to a logico-philosophical argument fraught with jargon.  Others resort to church history and historical theology.  The fact is, the Sacramental view cannot be supported exegetically from Scripture, because it is not there!

Can Christians be fully obedient if we do not believe that the person and work of the Holy Spirit, which is “the Promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4, 2:33), is central to the Plan of Redemption?  Why did Christ “have to go away” (Jn 14:28, 16:7) in order to send the Holy Spirit?  Why did Jesus tell the Apostles to “tarry in Jerusalem” till they be “filled”?  Why did the HS fill all those at Pentecost, at Ephesus, at Joppa, and Peter, Paul, Philip and his daughters, Agabus — if they could just seek “Real Presence” or “Mystical Union” instead?  Why were potential converts promised “the gift of the Holy Spirit” instead of “the gift of real presence/mystical union” (see Acts 2:38, 8:15 ff., 9:17, 11:16, 19:2 ff.)?

(We must not be like the “Oneness” schismatics who in 1915 admitted that you cannot find the “Jesus only” message in the Bible, you had to get it by revelation.  Revelation is subject to exegetical judgment in accordance with the plain teaching of Scripture, not just by revelation or any “special” teachings.  That which is exegetically unsupportable is specious at best.)

To garner “Real Presence” or “sacrament” from the few scant passages on the Lord’s Supper is, for starters, an “argument from silence”; and further, a preconceived and external theology.  It is not allowing the figurative language (symbol, metaphor) to act as intended, but forces the text into extreme, out-of-context literalism.  It is no more literal in the passages in question than when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” (John 6 – contrasting himself from physical bread while teaching no one to partake of such), “I am the door,” “I am the road,” or allusions to “living water.”  Note that He did not go on to teach his Disciples to venerate bread, doors, roads, or water.

The Lord’s Supper is, in two NT witnesses, a “remembrance” or “memorial.”  In three witnesses, it is a “testament,” in terms of a testimony of God’s promise.  There is no hint of literal Spirit-grace accompanying the elements in any way whatsoever.

Pagan Influences

Ernst Käsemann (Essays on New Testament Themes) argues for “Real Presence,” but spends all of one page and scant exegesis on it.  For his “proof” he relies largely on his construct of Paul’s version of the Lord’s Supper, which treats Paul’s concept as “adopted and adapted” from the gnostic myths of the Archetypal Man or Redeemer.  Indeed, to Käsemann, all of Paul’s christology is drawn from gnosticism (p. 109).

As such, Käsemann describes the taking of the sacrament as conveying the Pneuma (the “New Lord” to replace the lords of this world), which “is an epiphany of the exalted Lord, who becomes manifest in it…. Therefore the sacrament effects the transformation of man” (p. 118).  “And we become members of his Body because the Christ enters into us as Pneuma” (p. 115).  “The eucharistic cup mediates participation in this divine order because it mediates participation in the death of Jesus on which this order is based” (p. 128).

According to gnostic ideology, “Man is the object of this struggle between the powers. … he finds redemption when the Pneuma invades his earthly nature and recaptures him for the heavenly world.  The state of being resulting from this event is called ‘metamorphosis’.  While it only comes to final fruition in death, which is liberation from earthly matter, it nevertheless has a proleptic fulfilment in the cultic act” (p. 116).  “Because man can undergo a change of lordship, the possibility of an existential transformation exists.  And this is precisely what does happen in the sacramental event, when we are endowed with the gift of the Pneuma” (p. 117).

See my article on the Gnostic View of Christ as Redeemer or Archetypal Man:

Colin Brown’s New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT) likewise sees  contemporary pagan origins for the concept of “Real Presence,” (though not at all for Paul’s own christology, of course — that is Käsemann’s pet theory).

In the ancient religions eating and drinking were mostly formal meals, i.e. acts of public or private fellowship linked with the sacred….  Families, clans and religious fellowships received a share in divine power through the common meal, which represented their union with the deity.  The origin of the sacred character of the meal is connected with magic concepts, according to which the divine is embodied in material things (animism; similar ideas also in cannibalism,…  The thought that deity was contained in every plant (Demeter-Kore) led on to the idea that the deity possessed a life-giving power, which was received directly by those who shared the meal.  In short, there was nothing which unites man and man, and man and God, more than eating and drinking … (vol. 2, p. 520).

The Damage Being Done

I know of no source of statistics on how many Pentecostal leaders endorse or practice Sacramental Realism, Mystical Union, Contemplative Prayer, or other alternate spiritualities.  In many cases, it is a matter of degree rather than mere influence.  For example, Pentecostal worship is in a very broad sense “mystical” (as Mystics themselves note) but teaching that one can achieve spiritual grace through taking sacraments, or Mystical Union with Christ through Contemplative Prayer, fasting, etc., is contradictory to a Pentecostal theology, and extreme.

In my experience, people who believe in Mystical Union and Sacramental Realism begin to distance themselves from Scripture, the need for scriptural authority, and in fact begin to see themselves as “above” Scripture, having achieved some kind of higher personal association with Christ.  I am finding that more and more erstwhile Pentecostals, novice Pentecostals, and pseudo-Pentecostals are accepting these and other alternate spiritualities, abandoning or misunderstanding Pentecostalism, both historic and NT-based, apparently not discerning the differences.

Pentecostalism is the very doctrine of Christ and the Apostles, clearly taught and exemplified in Scripture, being the empowerment that Christ intended and promised for his Church through his Holy Spirit till Christ returns in glory.  This “grace,” as Paul discovered, “is sufficient.”

© 2013 Paul A. Hughes

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